The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrations by Betsy Peterschmidt
Here’s a narrative I haven’t seen often: a not-yet-an-immigration story. Young Aref has one more week left to spend in his idyllic home in Muscat, the capital city of his native Oman. In too-few days, he and his mother will fly to the other side of the world – 15 hours and nine minutes away by sky – to join his father in Ann Arbor, Michigan for three years. The days that follow are understandably difficult: Aref must bravely confront the fearful uncertainty of what lies ahead, while mourning all that he feels he will lose.
He will miss his school and his friends. He worries about leaving his room. That his aunt, uncle, and two cousins will be living in his house – thanks to a timely job transfer – is not making him particularly happy, even if his teacher told him that “the word ‘sharing’ was the most important word in the world.” He’s already convinced himself that his cousins will “mess everything up.”
He will miss his cat. He will miss the birds at the beach. He will miss the butterflies. He will miss his rock collection. He will, of course, miss the titular turtles even more, the turtles that “return to the exact same beach for egg-laying for decades“; he so wishes he could be there when the latest generation hatches.
But the one person he will long for most of all is his grandfather Sidi. Together they take a final overnight trip to “the Night of a Thousand Stars camp,” to share the wonders of the desert. “‘I would rather stay here,'” Aref insists over and over to Sidi, but each time, Sidi gently encourages his beloved grandson, “‘First, you have to go on your journey,'” followed with the reassurance of “‘Don’t worry, you will come back.'” Aref pours his worries and hopes into lists that document all that he loves about his present while mulling over his future so far away. He’s funny, he’s thoughtful, he’s sad, he’s hopeful. And he’s especially adept at avoiding the packing his mother reminds him to do.
Hapa Palestinian American Naomi Shihab Nye’s prowess as poet and songwriter (in addition to being an award-winning novelist) is lyrically evident here in her crystalline phrases, her detailed descriptions, her emotional acuity. The books itself is exquisitely enhanced by the art of Betsy Peterschmidt, with intricate small illustrations on the top and bottom of each page, with a larger rendering that introduces each new chapter. Aref’s lists are printed in child’s careful handwriting, adding authenticity to his precocious, self-aware voice. All together, Turtle of Oman, proves to be a magical, magnificent, memorable celebration of home.
Readers: Middle Grade